On February 2, the University of Georgia Hispanic Student Association announced that Maria Canals-Barrera would be the keynote speaker at the 2022 Latinx Achievement and Success Affirmation Ceremony.
Barrera is best known for her roles as Theresa Russo on Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” and Connie Torres in Disney Channel’s 2008 movie “Camp Rock.”
The ALAS ceremony is held for Hispanic or Latinx graduating students in UGA’s Tate Grand Hall. In 2020, the ceremony was canceled and took on a virtual format in 2021, so this year it will make a return in person.
” A big part of [ALAS] is to be able to include our family members in this special time for us because a lot of our family members don’t speak English,” HSA President Emelynn Arroyave said.
Arroyave described the bilingual ceremony as a celebration of cultural community, which highlights the successes of Hispanic and Latino students and is inclusive.
Patricia Lozada, an advertising major, said looking back on her time at HSA, being involved with the organization since her freshman year made her next degree even more monumental for her.
“I can’t even express how proud I am of our Board of Directors, especially our President, Emelynn…the work behind the scenes…says a lot about HSA’s growth,” Lozada said. “He’s transformed to an ability that I never thought he could have.”
Having Canals-Barrera be the keynote speaker was something Arroyave wanted even before she became president of HSA. Once elected president, she began to try to turn this idea into reality.
“I wanted to bring someone who would excite people, but it’s [also] reachable…for some reason, Theresa, the mother of ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’, is exactly what came to mind and stuck,” Arroyave said. “I looked at her Instagram and saw she had her agent’s email in her bio. So I emailed the manager, and we just emailed each other. and negotiated, and then we ended up finalizing it.”
Arroyave hopes bringing such a big name to UGA will be an appropriate “final leaving gift” for grad students.
“I really feel like I’m going out with a bang. Even in addition to having her as the keynote speaker herself, the fact that we got to consider this in the first place, like the emotions I feel [are] so much recognition. I really want to leave here after this semester, I can wholeheartedly say that I am leaving HSA with a bright future,” Lozada said.
Since Hispanic and Latinx students make up 5.8% of UGA’s student population, Arroyave explained that HSA has tried to create a “home away from home” for them.
“It’s really easy to feel alienated or displaced if you don’t see a lot of people who look like you. So our main goal is to really be a place of refuge for these students, but we’re also open to non-Hispanic students and anyone interested in culture,” Arroyave said.
Lozada confirmed that the organization had succeeded in forming a heartwarming community and said she would urge others to find communities that speak to them.
“I would say that my involvement has honestly given me lifelong friends that I never really thought I would have when I started college. I didn’t know I could get so close to people of this magnitude. I feel like it’s really sharing our culture together because I want to grow, it’s kind of hard to balance that identity,” Lozada said.
Opening up the ceremony to other students is something HSA is always trying to figure out, according to Arroyave. She explained that they need to make sure there is enough space left for graduates and their families. Ultimately, she hopes Hispanic and Latino students will learn something from the experience of bringing Canals-Barrera to Athens.
“Hispanic students might think, ‘Oh, we’re only 5% of the population.’ But no, you are a big deal and you deserve all the praise, all the ceremonies and all the celebrations,” Arroyave said.